Brenda Breathnach moved to New York City in 1994, planning on staying there for six months. 25 years later, she is the owner of 3 Dollar Bill in East Williamsburg - the city’s largest LGBT+ venue.
The 10,000 square-foot bar sees some fabulous events take place, often featuring some well-known faces such as Susanne Bartsch, Amanda LePore and Ireland’s very own Panti Bliss.
Brenda talked about the inspiration and meaning behind the title of the venue: “It was actually very hard to come up with a name. I was asking everyone in my bar in Phoenix and the bartender came up with 3 Dollar Bill, obviously coming from the phrase ‘queer as a three dollar bill’.”
What I really wanted to know was what kind of shenanigans go on in the bar, but when I attempted to get the inside scoop, Brenda told me, “Ah now, if I said anything, I’d be saying too much! You’ll have to come and find out for yourself. We don’t tell any stories outside of class.”
But she did give me some details on what I could expect if I turned up: “There is a show about Oscar Wilde on at the moment. That happens about three or four evenings a week. It’s really cool and they’re hoping to make it to Broadway, so we gave them the space to rehearse every day.”
Brenda added, “We have the big meet-parties with the likes of Susanne Bartsch. And those kinds of meet-parties always have the style and the glamour. There would be loads of guys in dresses and high heels. Anything goes here. Nobody takes notice of or judges anybody. Susanne actually has Amanda LePore with her every second Saturday of each month.
“In the past week, we’ve had quite a lot of celebrities come to the bar. Now, don’t ask me the names. Celebrities are all the same to me. I don’t remember names like that. But there have been a lot.”
Brenda explained how she would love to host a night dedicated to Irish queer people living in New York. “I keep telling the Irish bartenders that we should put on an Irish night because there are loads of Irish gays out here, but they’re spread all over the city. I think that is something that would bring the Irish queer community living in New York together.
“Irish gays tend to come and go, but I don’t see them as much as I would like to. I have some Irish lads working for me, but I would love to see more Irish customers. When the Irish come in, I would always buy them a drink and chat away to them.”
Brenda gave us some insight into her early experiences of being an Irish queer person living abroad. “Back in the day, Irish gays would have faced discrimination. When I came here, I started working in a place that was known as the Gap. We had our own soccer team and a lot of the girls that were on that team were gay. When I opened a bar on Broadway, if any of my friends came into the place, I got plenty of abuse [from people in the bar], I would be called a faggot. It’s not something I like talking about, but that was the case. That abuse would have come from other Irish people. But it has definitely changed. I think people at home were actually way ahead of the Irish here at the time. The Irish in America seemed more narrow-minded than the Irish at home.”
Before finishing up our chat, Brenda spoke about the joys of working with the gay community in New York. She revealed that she would “never work in a straight bar again.”
“I can’t emphasise enough how much the community thank us for giving them this space. What I also like is that everyone mixes together now. Irish gays don’t all just hang out with each other. They mix with the Americans, Germans, Asians and everyone. When we came over in 1994, we very much just stuck with each other. But the young people coming over now definitely mix and mingle more.
“We have so many security guards on because technically, we have to have them. But there really is no need for them. Because there is never any trouble with the gay community.
Working with the gay community here in New York, there’s nothing like it.”